The Gladiators


At the end of each season for National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia, the winning team is given a trophy fashioned after one of Australia’s enduring sporting images. Two mud-soaked men embracing each other — a symbol of camaraderie and ‘mateship’ in rugby league.

Two men were Norm Provan (left) and Arthur Summons, after whom the current trophy has been named since 2013 (earlier versions of the trophy also featured them, but was named after the cigarette manufacturer Winfield, which was forced to withdraw their sponsorship of the Premiership, following the ban on cigarette advertising). Provan and Summons were respectively the captains for St. George and Western Suburbs, and despite the photo and its subsequent history welding two men together, the giant second-rower and the diminutive halfback initially did not get along. Summons noted that he had refused to swap jumpers with Provan amidst the rumors that the referee had bet £600 on a St George win, and that the photo captured the moment when he complained about the referee’s decision to Provan.

The photo, later known as The Gladiators, was taken by the Sun-Herald photographer John O’Gready on 24th August 1963 when St George beat Western Suburbs 8-3 for the eighth of their consecutive championships premierships. Another photographer Phil Merchant took a similar picture for the Daily Telegraph but his editors chose not to run it, because Merchant took the photo vertically, which didn’t fit the horizontal space available.

The O’Gready photo went on to win numerous international awards, including the British Sport Picture of the Year award (the only Australian photo to be so honored thus far) and was considered one of the greatest sporting images. In 2007, Provan and Summons reunited to cover themselves in vaseline and pigment instead of mud to reproduce the photo for a charity.


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The Great Dismissal

David Smith reads the Governor’s message as stoney-faced Whitlam (left) looks on

In 1972, after 23 years of rule by conservative Liberal Party, Australia elected a Labor government under the leadership of the dashing and urbane Gough Whitlam. At once Whitlam’s government embarked on a programme of ambitious reforms – it gave Aborigines rights they had not previously enjoyed, began to disengage Australian troops from Vietnam, made university education free, and much more. But, the government gradually lost its majority and by 1975, the parliament was in a deadlock from which neither Whitlam nor Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the opposition, would budge.

Into this impasse entered Sir John Kerr, the Governor General. Using an obscure privilege previously not invoked, he dissolved the government, placed Fraser in control and ordered a general election. What happened on that evening of 11th November 1975 was perhaps the most memorable political event in Australia. An angry crowd of Labor supporters filled the steps and halls of the Parliament House as the news of the dismissal became publicly known; David Smith, Kerr’s Secretary, who was given the thankless job of announcing the dismissal to the public, had to enter Parliament House through a side door and make his way to the parliament’s steps from the inside. Smith read the proclamation, as the boos of the crowd drowned him out; after he concluded the short statement with the traditional “God save the Queen“, Whitlam began his address to the crowd with now immortal words:

Well may we say “God save the Queen” because nothing will save the Governor-General. The proclamation you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned “Malcolm Fraser”, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s Cur.

Although Whitlam may have won the war of words, he lost the general elections to Fraser, who would lead the Liberal Party to three electoral victories. Thus ended one of the most intriguing episodes of political theatre. Despite their outrage, indignation and resentment at the governor general’s high-handed interference before they had had any real chance to sort out their differences themselves, the Australian electorate calmly endorsed the action that had so incensed it only a month before. As for Labor, the episode became a humiliating reminder that Australia was still at root a colony, constitutionally subordinated to the United Kingdom, and an unelected representative of a government on the other side of the planet.

Thirty-Six Faceless Men

With nearly all votes counted and Australia is hurling towards its first hung parliament in 70 years. Although hung parliaments in Australia are common at a state level, the last time there was a hung parliament was in September 1940, when the then incumbent Prime Minister Robert Menzies formed a government with the support of the two independent MPs. The next thirteen months were tumultuous, with many Labour party members decidedly against Australia joining the British war effort, and with Menzies himself being voted out for his support for the ‘European War’ (as it was then) and for his failure to win an outright election.

Menzies, however, would lead to Liberal Party to victory in 1949, and embark upon the longest premiership in Australian history. His unbroken eighteen years in office were marked by domestic stability, housing and population booms, gagging social conservatism and Australia’s gradual shift away from the British Empire. By the time he retired in 1966, Menzies not only left behind an essentially small government but also a country with high unemployment, conscription and troops in Vietnam. Menzies’ primary opponent throughout his 18 years in office was the Australian Labour Party, which voted as a bloc. Labour was founded as a party to represent the working classes, and considered its parliamentary representatives as servants of the party as a whole; it required them to comply with official party policy; voted as a bloc.

In 1963, these hierarchical decision making cost the party a close election; At the March ALP conference, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam were photographed outside the Kingston Hotel in Canberra at 2 am in the morning. Although Calwell was the Leader of the Opposition and Whitlam was on the opposition front bench, neither man was a member of the Party’s federal executive, who were inside deciding the party’s manifesto, especially with regards to the U.S. naval bases in Australia. Menzies used the picture (which was taken solely for political manipulation, but ironically not by Menzies’ side) to draw attention to “thirty-six ‘faceless men’ whose qualifications are unknown, who have no electoral responsibility” that form the core of the Labour party. It is a jibe that is still remembered more than 40 years later in Australian politics.

After another electoral defeat in 1967, Whitlam succeeded Arthur Calwell as the party leader. More politically savvy than his predecessor, Whitlam spent years reforming the party, eventually turning the secretive federal executive into a public forum. He also turned Menzies’ soundbite to his own advantage by calling his Liberal opponents, “the 12 witless men”. Whitlam eventually became prime minister in 1972; his tenure was bitter and short and “the Dismissal” which arrived rather controversially was undoubtably a welcome relief for him.

(I couldn’t find the said faceless men photo anywhere. Above is just a simple photo of Arthur Calwell (right) and Gough Whitlam(left)).